Alongside Cannes, Berlin, Venice, and Sundance, Toronto is considered to be one of the top five film festivals in the world. Spread throughout the city in numerous venues with dozens of events, the Toronto Film Festival is big, with a daunting and hefty schedule of hundreds of films. It’s also become the place to showcase those releases that are timed for Oscar consideration, which means that every night, there are about four red-carpet events happening at once with dueling parties vying for your attention. Hollywood studios spend millions of dollars to put their best contenders in the ring here. And just as Oscar campaigns start in this northern city, they can also end here with a thud.

This year’s biggest success was the film Atonement, directed by Joe Wright, who previously helmed Pride and Prejudice. He has found a muse in Keira Knightley, who’s pulling out the most mature and accomplished work of her career. Adapted from Ian McEwan’s novel of the same name, Atonement takes place during World War II and is about the consequences of one childish act of spite. It is a gorgeous, intimate epic that brought to mind The English Patient. In the middle of the film, there’s a long extended shot that’s like nothing you’ve ever seen, recalling the best work of David Lean. James McAvoy gives a career-making performance and will cement his status as a leading man. I can confidently say this movie will make the final five come Oscar nomination morning.

After taking Cannes by storm, the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men continued its positive unveiling. Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, it tells the story of how an average man starts a catastrophic chain of events by grabbing a sack full of money. This is the Coen brothers’ best work, and their ensemble of actors-including James Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones-is superb. But it’s Javier Bardem who takes the cake. His villainous role is one of the creepiest performances on screen-up there with Anthony Perkins in Psycho and Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs. No Country handles violence with biblical undercurrents and immediacy.

Other successes here include Toronto’s own director David Cronenberg, who premiered his latest, Eastern Promises, to a standing ovation. It stars his celluloid alter ego Viggo Mortensen and contains one sequence in a Turkish bath that’s outrageous and exhilarating. After a great premiere in Telluride, Jason Reitman’s Juno was received with hosannas here, and George Clooney’s turn as a powerful lawyer in Michael Clayton proved to be a winner. Sean Penn showed his Into the Wild, a skillful adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s bestseller, and an old master, Sidney Lumet, returned to fine form with the stirring drama Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. With an almost Shakespearean tone, Devil stars the great Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei, Albert Finney, and Ethan Hawke. Another surprise was the charming Lars and the Real Girl, starring Ryan Gosling, about a man and his plastic girlfriend-literally.

Rendition, a political thriller directed by Academy Award winner Gavin Hood (Tsotsi) and starring Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal, received a mixed reception from critics. Woody Allen’s latest, Cassandra’s Dream, was not well received at all. Ang Lee’s Lust Caution, which had won best picture at the Venice Film Festival, didn’t seem to excite the Toronto audience. Meanwhile, Elizabeth: The Golden Age had critics like Roger Ebert singing its praises while others dismissed it as a complete mess. Although I was thoroughly impressed by the acting, Reservation Road with Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Ruffalo was deemed overwrought.

The most controversial film of the festival was Nothing Is Private. Directed by Alan Ball-the Academy Award-winning writer of American Beauty and creator of HBO’s Six Feet Under-the film is based on Alicia Erian’s novel Towelhead. Set during the Gulf War, it’s about a young Arab-American girl struggling with sexual obsession, her strict father, and a bigoted Army reservist. One critic said the film was “insulting.”

There are so many films here in Toronto, and sometimes the quality of many of them is questionable. I found myself walking out of a lot of films and feeling disappointed. The Telluride Film Festival may show only 35 films, but it is a more refined selection. Yet there’s no denying Toronto’s importance as a film festival. This is a good place to meet industry people and see old friends and colleagues. I ran into Ivan Reitman, Tom Pollock, and Joe Medjuk of Montecito Pictures. Another Santa Barbara resident, Tim Matheson, was working on a film shoot there and attended several screenings with me. And our own PR maven Carol Marshall was taking care of her client Jimmy Smits and his new film The Jane Austen Book Club.

But one thing I will always remember is the experience of being one of the first to see Atonement. That was priceless, and worth my entire trip to Toronto.


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